The most generous description you could give to Rishi Sunak is that he is a moron. A 24-carat certified blockhead with the ability to think on his feet of a particularly lumbering pigeon and a political skillset so woeful he makes Liz Truss seem like Abraham Lincoln. But, as I say, that’s a generous description.
The thought comes as, a day after he inadvertently made a £1,000 bet on sending asylum seekers to Rwanda, Sunak inadvertently made news in prime minister’s questions. Broadly, prime ministers should not inadvertently do things, but they should not make news in prime minister’s questions. It is rarely good for them.
Upon rising to ask his first question, Keir Starmer noted that the mother of Brianna Ghey, the 16-year-old transgender girl stabbed to death in a Cheshire park, was sat in the public gallery. “As a father I can’t even imagine the pain that she’s going through and I’m glad that she’s with us in the gallery today,” he said. Brianna’s killers were last week sentenced to life imprisonment. This weekend her mother, Esther, will mark a year since her death.
Exactly one minute and 34 seconds later, in the midst of a list of u-turns Sunak claimed Starmer had made since being elected Labour leader, the prime minister made a joke. “Defining a woman!,” he said. “Although, in fairness, that was only 99% of a u-turn!”. He smiled at his own cleverness. Tory MPs behind him laughed. Alongside him, health secretary Victoria Atkins guffawed like she’d just seen Del Boy fall through the bar for the first time.
Starmer rose slowly, looking simultaneously pensive and furious. As he paused to respond, many Tory MPs made the rising roar opposing football fans greet a goalkeeper preparing to take a long goal kick. It was as if not a single one of them had realised what their leader had just done.
“Of all the weeks to say that, when Brianna’s mother is in this chamber – shame,” said Starmer. “Parading as a man of integrity when he’s got absolutely no responsibility. I think the role of the prime minister is to ensure that every single citizen in this country feels safe and respected, and it’s a shame the prime minister doesn’t share that.” It felt like genuine anger.
A politician with even the most elementary ability would not have made Sunak’s joke, but they would certainly have used the following answer to apologise, even if appending the scoundrel’s refuge “if any offence was caused”. Sunak did not. Indeed, he did not even take the off-ramp very generously offered to him by the Labour MP Liz Twist when she asked for an apology later (he addressed the main crux of her question, on the Teeside Freeport, but ignored the request).
It was only at the very end of the session that it was obvious that a note had reached him from aides who had been monitoring Twitter and noting that his thick-witted barb was going down like a particularly knackered lift.
“If I could just say, also, to Brianna Grey’s” – yes, he got her name wrong – “mum, who is here, as I said earlier this week, what happened was an unspeakable and shocking tragedy, Mr Speaker, and as I said earlier this week, in the face of that, for her mother to demonstrate the compassion and empathy that she did last weekend, I thought demonstrated the very best of humanity in the face of seeing the very worst of humanity and she deserves all our admiration and praise for that.” It was not, you will note, an apology.
As I say, the most generous interpretation you could give to Sunak is that he is a useless politician, overpromoted well beyond his grade, lacking the most basic of surefootedness, boasting all the social skills of a Saturday worker at CeX and destined to crash and burn at an epic level the first time he makes contact with the actual general public in an election campaign.
Because the alternative – that our prime minister isn’t just incompetent, but an inhuman, hateful, unprincipled man willing to delve into the basest depths of the culture wars, mocking trans people as a grieving mother sits metres from him, is too horrific to contemplate.
Next week, back to the jokes.